What is in a Thought? Why Gati are so Important?

Revised March 1, 2020; March 20, 2023

Many confusing terms in Abhidhamma, like citta and mano, have been interpreted differently in different books. To clarify these concepts, I am writing a few posts in the “Dhamma Concepts” section under “Mind and Consciousness” starting with:  “1. Thoughts (Citta), Consciousness (Viññāṇa), and Mind (Hadaya Vatthu) – Introduction“.

1. In the previous post, we saw that a thought (citta; pronounced “chittha”) lasts much less than a billionth of a second. The more surprising part is that each citta has structure! Each citta “contains” multiple cetasika (mental factors.) It is more accurate to say that each citta rises with several cetasika, and they all perish together within a billionth of a second.

  • Of course, a citta does not arise by itself. It is in a citta vīthi involved in “sensing the outside world.” That can occur via one of the six senses. Such a citta vīthi has either 17 cittās (for those sensing events involving the five physical senses) or 12 cittās in citta vīthi involving only the mind. In between those, the mind is in the “bhavaṅga” state. 
  • There is a “bhavaṅga” state associated with each “bhava.” Upon transitioning to a new bhava, a new “bhavaṅga state” will be associated with that new bhava. That is because the “seat of the mind” (hadaya vatthu) is unique to each bhava.
  • However, we do not “feel” the “bhavaṅga state.” For details, see “State of Mind in the Absence of Citta Vithi – Bhavaṅga.”

2. The cetasika (mental factors) provide different qualities to each citta. A citta is moral (kusala), immoral (akusala), or neutral (kriya), depending on what type of cetasikā rises with it.

A complete description of 52 cetasika is given in “Cetasika (mental factors).” A summary:

  • There are seven universal cetasika that rise with ANY citta.
  • Six others CAN appear in any citta, i.e., only some may be in a given citta.
  • There are 14 asobhana cetasika (non-beautiful mental factors) that appear only in akusala citta.
  • There are 25 sobhana cetasikā (beautiful mental factors.) Nineteen sobhana cetasikā appear in every kusala citta; thus, those 19 are called beautiful universals.

3. Let us first discuss the seven universal cetasika. These arise with ANY citta. A citta with just these is called a “pabhassara citta” because it is the “purest form” of a citta. It becomes a “viññāṇa citta” as it develops in time within a billionth of a second! See “Citta, Manō, Viññāṇa – Stages of a Thought.”

  • What we experience are “viññāṇa,” as viññāṇa khanda (aggregate of viññāṇa or a “heap of viññāṇa”).

The seven universal cetasika that arise with any citta are:

  • Phassa (contact), saññā (perception), vedanā (feeling), cetanā (intention), ekaggata (one-pointedness), jivitindriya (life faculty), and manasikāra (memory).

4. The phassa (contact) cetasika makes contact with the “object of the citta,” whether it is sense input from one of the five physical senses or a concept that makes contact with the mind.

  • Thus, the phassa cetasika makes it possible for the mind to make contact with the world.
  • Saññā (perception) identifies the object by working with manasikāra (memory), and vedana (feeling) arises.
  • Depending on the object, one will generate good, bad, or neutral feelings, and different types of cetasika (greed, shame, compassion, etc.) can arise; cetana (intention) puts it all together and “prepares” the citta. Based on the types of cetasika in the citta, it could be a good or bad thought. This is why cetana can be good or bad, and the Buddha said: “cetana is kamma.”
  • Ekaggata is the ability to keep the mind on one object. Jivitindriya maintains life in the current life (keeps the body alive) until death. And manasikāra is the all-important memory. Manasikāra has ALL memories (or nāma gotta) from the beginning-less time; see “Difference between Dhamma and Saṅkhāra” for a discussion on nāmagotta.
  • This is why the present citta is the precursor to the next citta, and that next citta is NOT entirely different from the previous citta. “Cause and effect” is at work from citta to citta, maintaining the “personality” or “gati” of the given lifestream.  Thus, the Buddha rejected the notion of a “no-self” or a “self.”
  • Yet it is essential to realize that “gati” can change even in a citta; for example, one attains the Arahanthood with a single citta (of course, with billions of citta vīthi making gradual progress towards it).

5. So, we can see the basic working of a citta with these seven universals; they carry out the most fundamental and vital functions of recognizing the object, matching it with old memories and figuring out what it is, and also sukha, dukha, or neutral feeling arise because of that recognition.

  • Yet all that does not happen in a single citta. When an “input” comes through one of the six senses, it is captured by a citta vīthi containing 17 cittās for a physical sense input and 12 cittās for a mind input, as we discussed in the previous post. Then, that “captured event” is discerned and analyzed by three follow-up “manodvāra citta vīthi,” i.e., by the mind.
  • Even then, we only experience the “net result” of millions of such citta vīthi; see “What is a Thought?” However, due to the extreme rapidity of these processes, we feel like we are using all six in real time. We are not. The mind is always analyzing a set of events that have already gone by. This is discussed in the Bāhiya Sutta (Ud 1.10), “diṭṭhe diṭṭhamattaṃ bhavissati ………”. What we experience NOW is what has already transpired.

6. But invariably, other cetasika (other than the seven universal) arise as the citta develops in time, and the citta becomes kusala citta, akusala citta, or a kriya (neutral) citta depending on the cetasika that arise with the citta.

  • Sobhana cetasika arise with kusala citta and asobhana cetasika arise with akusala citta.
  • These cetasika types do not mix, i.e., no sobhana cetasika arise with an akusala citta, etc.

7. Now the question arises: If cittā arise and fall and go by so rapidly, how do we willfully stop akusala citta from arising? Especially when exposed to a tempting external object like an eye-catching figure.

And the answer lies in a straightforward concept that I have discussed in many posts:

  • This is where one’s character qualities (gati) and āsava come into play. One automatically responds with the “set of values” one has.
  • By changing habits, one can change one’s character (gati)and eventually change one’s deep-rooted cravings (āsavā). Even though the answer is simple, it takes a long time to get rid of bad habits and cultivate good habits, at least initially.
  • Then with time, as that gati loses its power, one will be less and less tempted when subjected to the same sensory input. For example, this could be the sight of an attractive figure or an enemy.

8. The key to reducing such bad gati is to forcefully suppress that bad thought as soon as you become aware of it. Even though an evil thought arises automatically, one becomes aware of it after a few seconds.

  • As soon as you become aware of an evil thought, you should think about the dire consequences and forcefully stop that thought stream. Just start thinking about something good or doing something that needs your full attention.
  • When you keep doing this for a while, that tendency will slowly reduce, i.e., that bad gati will lose its power.
  • For example, if one needs to quit smoking, as soon as one starts lighting a cigarette, one should think about the harmful consequences of smoking and throw it away. Keep some mints handy and pop one in your mouth. Finding a “replacement activity” always helps to break a bad habit.
  • If it is a hateful thought, one could stop that and start thinking about something good. Recalling something pleasant, say a picture of the Buddha, can help. Always have a “replacement” ready.
  • One needs to keep doing this faithfully to make the old habit weak.

9. When one gets rid of bad habits and cultivates good habits, the neural connections in one’s brain get rewired. The brain changes gradually, and that is how the thoughts change. This is an easy answer to using modern science.

10. Therefore, initially, one responds with one’s current set of values or gatiBut after a few moments, one CAN think about the consequences and correct the initial automatic reaction.

  • This is further explained in terms of the instant reaction coming from the limbic system in the brain and the “reasoned out” corrective action coming from the neo-cortex or “the thinking brain”; see “Truine Brain – How the Mind Rewires the Brain via Meditation/Habits“.
  • And that is how we slowly change our gati by willfully correcting the initial “auto-response.” This is what makes us different from animals. Animals do not have this ability, at least not to our level.
  • The more you “catch” such “inappropriate auto-responses” and stop them, the more effectively you can get rid of bad habits, cultivate good habits, and change your gati (character) in the right direction. This is “ānāpāna sati,” i.e., one keeps good thoughts and gets rid of bad thoughts willfully; see “What is Ānāpāna?” in the Meditation section.

11. As mentioned above, cetasikā present in a given citta determines the quality and/or the function of the citta.

  • An immoral (akusala) citta has one or more immoral roots; avijjā (delusion cetasika) is in any immoral citta.
  • A moral (kusala) citta will always have non-greed and non-hate cetasika. Wisdom (paññā) cetasika rises only in citta with all three roots (tihetuka citta).
  • We have encountered many of the cetasika in the posts on various topics: the five hindrances are included in the 14 asobhana cetasika.
  • The four bases of mental power (satara iddhipāda) are four of the sobhana cetasika, i.e., chanda, citta, viriya, vīmaṃsā. Here, citta means “thinking about the goal” and thus is sammā saṅkappa when fully cultivated. Vīmaṃsā is another name for paññā and becomes sammā diṭṭhi when fully cultivated; see “37 Factors of Enlightenment“.
  • Some of the factors in the Noble Eightfold Path are directly in the set of sobhana cetasika, for example, sammā vācā, sammā kammaṃta, and sammā ājīva. Other cetasika like sati and paññā, when cultivated, become sammā sati and sammā diṭṭhi.
  • Similarly, ekaggata in the universal cetasika set becomes sammā samadhi, and viriya and vitakka in the set of particulars become sammā vāyāma and sammā saṅkappa when cultivated.

12.  As we noted, we can control a bad series of thoughts like planning a robbery or making a quick plan to steal an item from a store. There is enough time to think about the consequences of such bad actions and deliberately stop such thoughts. But one needs to be in a reasonably stable “state of mind” to be able to do that. When the mind is agitated, the mind cannot see “right from wrong.” The five hindrances cover the mind.

  • Sometimes, people commit horrendous crimes in the spur of the moment. One can get into a rage and shoot someone with a gun that is close by. How do we stop such quick reactions? By being mindful of controlling that bad gati, which is the tendency to get mad at the slightest provocation. See #10 above.
  • When one keeps reducing one’s “bad gati,” such really dangerous gati — which could lead to rebirth in the apāyā — will be permanently eliminated when one becomes a Sotāpanna. With that achieved, that mindset persists even in future lives. As we saw, a patisandhi citta in the new life arises based on the cuti citta of the past life, so it has all the “gati” from a past life. Changing to a “gati” of a Sotāpanna is a change in the lineage (gotrabhu.) One becomes an Ariya or a Noble person forever.

Next, “Why Do People Enjoy Immoral Deeds? – Diṭṭhi Is Key“, ……….


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